View Full Version : Ex-Marine tells how he became one of Chosin Few

12-11-05, 03:49 PM
Days Gone By: Ex-Marine tells how he became one of Chosin Few
Sunday, December 11, 2005 12:46 PM CST

Margaret Taylor Turner still felt like a newlywed more than a year after marrying Frank Turner on June 18, 1949.

Long before they married, Frank had been drafted at age 18 by the U.S. Army to serve during the end of World War II. The second oldest of 11 children, he was drafted in September 1944.

Following basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, he was sent to serve with the 25th Division on Luzon in the South Pacific. It was mostly “mopping up” exercises but it was still war. The first time he thought he was coming under attack, he realized he wasn’t shooting at the Japanese, he was shooting at caribou.

“I was just scared,” Frank said, chuckling. “No telling what you’ll shoot at first time you think you’re getting shot at.”

He did receive assault training in preparation for assault landing on the mainland of Japan. But fortunately, the war was swiftly brought to an end after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Frank transferred to a service battalion and worked four months as a quartermaster in Japan during the occupation.

Frank went to the 24th Infantry Service Battalion for about six months before returning stateside in late September 1946. Born and raised on farm land off Old Redwater Road where Lone Star Ammunition Plant would later be built, he signed up for courses at Texarkana College and started wielding for A.P. LeGrand. A year later he began working at Atlas Construction Company.

Frank still can’t quite explain why he did it, but for some reason he felt compelled to go back into the military. This time he wanted to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. He particularly wanted to join the local Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Texarkana, Texas.

On the morning of the day, June 25, 1950, that Frank Turner signed up to join the Marine Corps Reserves, tens of thousands of North Korean troops crossed the border into South Korea as rounds of artillery shells exploded around Kaesong, the ancient Korean capital.

On July 25, Frank was called to active duty in the corps. He landed with the Marines at Inchon, Korea, on Sept. 16, 1950.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1950 as he was having a sparse Thanksgiving dinner with the Marines in the pass leading up to the Chosin Reservoir, Margaret Turner sat down for Thanksgiving dinner half a world and half a day away at her mother’s home on West 10th and Brown streets in Texarkana, Texas.

She was living with her mother, Myrl, while Frank was overseas, and having Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of her family—her sister, Jeri, and her uncle, Lath Martin.

She doesn’t specifically remember the Thanksgiving dinner, which soon would be overshadowed by the harrowing news of what was going on in Korea. She and most of the rest of the nation had never heard of the Chosin Reservoir, but it would soon become a household name.

Fifty-five years ago from Nov. 26 through Dec. 8, Marines endured a campaign in the frozen mountains of Korea as grueling and heroic as any in history. The few who are left to remember it today, like Frank Turner of Redwater, Texas, would become the “Chosin Few.”

Marines today tell the story of the Chosin Reservoir alongside those of Belleau Wood, Tarawa and Iwo Jima. It’s a name from a “Forgotten War” that will never be forgotten.

On Nov. 10, the Marines’ 175th birthday, temperature dropped like a stone, plummeting below zero. To survive, Marines piled on layers of clothing. They carried canteens and extra socks inside their clothes, next to their skin. However, they still paid the painful penalty of frostbite and frozen feet, hands, fingers and faces.

Oil congealed in weapons. Entrenching tools broke like glass against the frozen earth. Jeeps were useless for carrying the wounded, who would freeze to death in minutes. The cold numbed both flesh and spirit.

On Sunday, Nov. 26, the People’s Liberation Army struck along a 300-mile front, throwing the entire 8th Army into retreat. The 5th Marines kept heading toward Yudam-Ni on the western face of the Chosin Reservoir. Frank was with “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Marines, serving in M Company with six 155 Howitzers.

By midnight that Sunday, the temperature was 25 below zero as the Siberian wind tore across the stark hills and the frozen western arm of the forbidding reservoir. Early that Monday morning the Marines gathered around small fires to thaw their rations and weapons.

Ordered finally to retreat, Frank and the other Marines in his artillery unit began to fire up the trucks to haul the 155s back down the TokTong Pass toward Hagaru-Ri and from there to Koto-Ri. From there they would make their way to Hungnam and the harbor and onto ships that would carry them back to South Korea.

They would have to fight every step of the way, but not before they could get their truck started.

“We were the last three Marines in the convoy heading south and our truck wouldn’t start because it was out of gas,” Frank said. “Me and another Marine had loaded up a bunch of wounded into the truck. The convoy went off and left us, just he and I and the driver. Me and that other boy had to push that truck about a half mile down that frozen road.”

Fortunately, the infantry behind them was keeping the hordes of Chinese off their backs as the two men pushed the truck laden with wounded down the treacherous slope of the frozen hill. They came to a Jeep that had been knocked out but still had a gasoline can intact in the back. They detached the gas can and poured what was left in the tank of the truck while the driver pumped the accelerator until it coughed and started.

They promptly drove off, leaving the two men standing in the middle of the road with thousands of angry Chinese coming right for them from every side. Machine gun fire and tracers were coming from all sides, “which is why that driver wanted to get out of there,” Frank said.

By now it was dark as the men slipped down the road, their sleeping bags under one arm and their rifle under the other. They came to a bridge, and although it was dark enough to slip across the bridge without being seen, there was a burning house just on the other side, and they were afraid they would be outlined in the flames. Frank came up with a quick and dangerous solution.

“OK, you set up here and give me cover and I’ll cross over and set up and give you cover,” he said.

The other Marine agreed, and much to their relief neither were fired on. They kept on the road a ways and heard a motor starting up down there in the dark. They eased on down and found a group of Australian soldiers ... having tea.

“They had set up a a small compound and were having a spot of tea,” Frank recalls, laughing. “That was the best hot cup of tea I ever had or ever will have again. I fell right asleep very well until morning.”

He caught up with his unit that very morning and just in time. As they had set up their six 155s, they looked up the long slope of the hill to their right flank and thousands of Chinese were coming off the hill in droves, blowing horns and whistles and “making a heck of a racket,” Frank said.

Their 155s began making a racket right back, as did the Marine infantry in front of them. The six Howitzers blew their ample nostrils at the enemy one after another, literally all day long. At one point, Frank ordered the infantry in front to dig in so his 155s could fire level with the ground.

“We fired directly into the charging enemy,” he said. “They would be there one moment and gone the next. It was a bloody, senseless charge, all day long. They got within the perimeter of the Marine infantry only one time that I can think of, but they dispatched with them in hand-to-hand very quickly.”

As the dark drew close, so did the attack. One wedge-winged Marine Corsair flew over and dropped one bomb, and “they all disappeared in front of us,” Frank recalled. “When we packed up to leave, our feet hardly touched the ground as we walked across that hill. They (the Chinese soldiers’ bodies) were frozen solid and looked like corrugated iron.”

The next morning as his unit was preparing to leave at daylight, Frank felt more than heard a dull thud over his left shoulder. He felt something pick at his fur-lined jacket. The corpsman who patched him up said one piece of mortar round shrapnel lodged in the thick shoulder muscle right behind the joint in his left shoulder. Another had passed clean through, missing his Adam’s apple by a fraction of an inch.

The corpsman picked out the one slug of steel, slapped on a bandage and sent Frank on his way.

There were two things that every member of The Chosin Few will always remember: The frostbite and the frozen dead. The Marines picked up and carried their dead all the way back to the coast.

The price the 1st Marine Division alone had paid from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 was 164 killed, 55 missing in action and 921 wounded. There were 1,140 casualties and 1,194 non-battle casualties. Between Oct. 26 and Dec. 15 the 1st Marine Division alone suffered 4,395 battle casualties (718 dead, 192 missing and 3,485 wounded) and 7,143 non-battle casualties.

The remaining job of leaving North Korea was enormous: More than 105,000 troops, 91,000 Korean refugees, 17,500 vehicles and mountains of supplies were sea-lifted out. By Dec. 14 of that year, 22,215 Marines were on board ships.

When Margaret Turner and her family sat down to have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25, 1950, she, like most service wives during the last of November and the month of December, was living a life of quiet terror as the news of the Chosin Reservoir flooded the airwaves across America.

There was a fervent blessing at the table that Christmas dinner as the family beseeched God to watch over Margaret’s husband. As the meal began, there was a knock at the front door.

“We had not heard one word from Frank all during this time, and every time anybody knocked on our front door everybody would jump,” Margaret said. “I answered the door and it was Buddy Miller’s brother.”

Buddy Miller was a neighbor who lived about a block from Margaret’s family on West Ninth Street. He was in the Marines with Frank and was in Korea the same time as Frank. Buddy’s brother had come by to tell Margaret that they had just heard from Buddy, who was in a hospital with frostbite. He was OK and wanted Margaret to know that he had seen Frank and that Frank was OK as well.

As it turned out, Frank had a touch of frostbite but not enough to cost him any digits or limbs. To this day, Frank says men and women handle the horrors of war in their own ways and to more of an extent than they may believe and control their own fate.

“A man can’t protect himself sometimes, like the two times I was hit by mortar fire,” Frank said. “But there are things one can do to that goes a long way.”

For example, during the march home from the Chosin Reservoir in 20- and 40-degree below zero weather, Turner literally scraped together 30 to 40 sandbags to wrap around his feet. Not 40 bags for both feet, 40 bags for each foot.

“I tied them around my feet with rope,” he said. “I had to literally walk like a duck, but I wasn’t laughing. Nobody else was, either. There’s nothing funny about loosing both your feet or legs, and believe me a lot of us did.”

Frank remembers a young Marine he knew from Texarkana who refused to get up and walk around to keep his feet from freezing. When he told the boy to get on his feet and move around or he would lose them, the boy only whined, “But I’m too cold ... I’m too cold!”

“By the time we got back to base, they had to take both his feet off,” Frank said. “A lot of youngsters, even grown men, scoff at wearing their seat belts in their cars. Not me, I can see where seat belts will save your life. A lot of people die in war or in regular life because they don’t think, or they don’t care.”

Frank returned to the states in the fall of 1951 and continued an apprenticeship with Atlas Contraction. He became a journeyman carpenter a year later.

Frank joined the regular Marines in 1955 and made two tours of Vietnam. He earned his second Purple Heart just before the end of his second tour.

“A mortar round tried to get me again,” he said, laughing. “It was only a small slug through my hand this time. Nothing serious.”

Gunnery Sgt. Frank Turner retired from the corps on Aug. 1, 1978.

The only thing Turner has been dead serious about his whole life, besides serving his country, has been his carpentry. He is a master carpenter and once built seven houses in one year. He’s 80 years old now, lives on 100-percent disability and gives of himself 100 percent of the time.

“He’s a nut about Habitat for Humanity,” Margaret said. “He also belongs to the local chapter of The Chosin Few and all the guys and spouses love getting together every year.”

The Turners have two grown sons, Terry and Larry, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Their very “special” grandson, J.T. Turner, lives at Opportunities Inc., but has his own bedroom at the Turners and stays every weekend with them. J.T. is 27 and brightens every Thanksgiving and Christmas at the Turner household.

Frank has some paraphernalia he’s saved from his service during World War II, Korea and two tours in Vietnam. The one that means more to him than all the others is a small certificate of appreciation he received from the City of Vista, Calif., where he once coached an American Little League baseball team while still serving in the corps.

On March 17, 1969, Turner was driving home during a torrential rainfall when he spotted a flooded ditch to his right as he stopped for a red light. Two adults were frantically pulling on a child’s arms as the water in the ditch attempted to pull the boy into a concrete covert.

Frank watched, horrified as the men lost hold of the boy’s arms and the child disappeared into the storm drain.

But being cool under pressure, Frank saw instantly where the child would emerge from the covert, right near where he was parked. He jumped out of the car and ran into the ditch swollen with raging water, emerging from the end of the covert.

“I stood spread-legged and waited for him to hit my legs,” Frank said. “As soon as he hit I grabbed him and threw him up the embankment.”

He quickly threw himself beside the child, whose heart had stopped, and began CPR. Another man ran over and helped pump the boy’s chest.

“It seemed like forever before the man said he thought he felt a heart beat,” Frank said. “I didn’t think the ambulance would ever get there, but I kept breathing in the boy’s mouth and the other man kept pressing his chest, and after a few minutes he came back around.”

The boy’s name was Wayne Rees and he was 13 years old and Frank thinks about the boy every March.

He also thinks about one other young man in his life and wonders what became of him.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever seen was just before I came home from the last leg of my tour in Vietnam. One of the boys in my group was coming back to pick up more ammunition and hit a land mine right in front of me,” Frank said. “The detonation blew off both his arms and both his legs and both his eyes. And he lived.

“Our CO went to see him in the hospital later and all he was worried about was how he was going to make a living.”